A wry smile etches itself across Jamie Walker’s face. It isn’t prompted by avoiding serious injury against Hamilton’s Ali Crawford on Monday night. That is more a cause of huge relief for the Hearts winger.
Walker is asked about the new left wing-back role he occupied in Lanarkshire. He smirks in recognition of the fact it isn’t his strongest position. That said, he performed quite superbly in the unaccustomed role, scored two goals in a dramatic 3-3 draw and proved his versatility to everyone in the 2339 crowd.
Crawford’s studs-up challenge seconds from the final whistle could have ruined what was a very productive night for the 23-year-old from Wester Hailes. He scored for the first time in more than two months and looked comfortable attacking and defending up and down the left flank.
An additional bonus was managing to complete 90 minutes on astroturf for the first time since knee surgery last Christmas.
Whether he continues in the wing-back position remains to be seen. The decision belongs to Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson.
“I’m not sure, you’d probably need to ask the gaffer,” Walker told the Evening News “I enjoyed playing out there, I got a lot of the ball and got chances to drive forward. I’m just happy to be in the team and to help the team. I had more of a licence to get forward because I’m more of an attacking player. On the other side, Liam Smith was tucking in more to make a back four while I went forward.
“The gaffer played me there because I’ve been putting the defensive stuff into my game as well lately. I’ve been getting back and helping out. I enjoyed the role. Now we’ll see what happens on Saturday because we have another big game against Motherwell.”
Defensively, Hearts left a lot to be desired on Monday evening. Indeed, they have conceded ten goals in the last four games against traditionally smaller clubs Kilmarnock, Inverness, St Johnstone and Hamilton. Their back line was anything but sealed at Hamilton’s recently renamed SuperSeal Stadium. Walker is candid enough to acknowlege that his team looked rather disjointed in certain areas.
“You could see that the goals we lost were pretty poor. It’s maybe because of the way we set up, I don’t know. We hadn’t played with the three centre-backs before. We just wanted to go man-for-man against Hamilton because they play a back three as well. It’ll be up to the gaffer what he’s got in mind for the next few weeks.”
Walker’s opening goal put Hearts ahead but they found themselves 3-1 down before he converted a penalty to reduce the deficit. Another late equaliser from Callum Paterson rescued a draw from a match which might easily have been lost.
“I’m delighted to get back among the goals. It had been a while since I scored,” stated Walker, who was denied a hat-trick when his second-half effort rebounded off the crossbar. “Actually, the two I got against Hamilton at Tynecastle [in September] was the last time I hit the net. I’m pleased at scoring twice but disappointed we didn’t get the three points.”
It appears Hearts are stuck in a rut right now with only three points garnered from the last 12 available. That total leaves them fourth in the Ladbrokes Premiership, three points behind Rangers in third place and four behind Aberdeen in second.
They continue to score goals without too much difficulty – eight in the last three matches – so Neilson’s immediate challenge is to find a working formula at the back to protect goalkeeper Jack Hamilton.
“We went to Inverness and scored three, we scored three at Hamilton but we’ve only taken two points from these away matches. We’ll look at it and see where we went wrong,” continued Walker, who is adamant there is sufficient resolve within the Riccarton dressing-room to drag the team through these troubles and back to winning form. “I think we’re going through a bit of a tough patch but we’re only three points behind Rangers and four behind Aberdeen. Saturday against Motherwell is a big game and then we play Rangers in midweek. We’ll go in there full of confidence, keep doing things right, and hopefully the results will come.”
“We were 3-1 down at Hamilton with 20 minutes to go. I think we showed the quality and belief we have to come back again. We fought back at Inverness as well. We’re delighted to get a point having been 3-1 down but we’re still disappointed we didn’t get three. We have a lot of character and belief in the squad.”
The general consensus would appear to state that Hearts will have the appropriate blend if they can secure their defensive line. Strikers are not yer firing on all cyclinders, which Neilson will be fully aware of, but issues at the back demand more immediate attention. “I think that’s right. At the start of the season, we weren’t conceding many goals at all. If we can brush up at the back and get back to that kind of form, then we won’t be far away,” said Walker.
At least others are finding the net to provide assistance for struggling attacking colleagues. Strikers Bjorn Johnsen, Tony Watt and Conor Sammon have managed just four league goals between them to date, so the interventions of others like Paterson and Walker are crucial to Hearts’ fortunes.
Paterson claimed his seventh goal of the season in Lanarkshire and is top goalscorer at Tynecastle this season. Playing right-back is clearly no deterrent to his attacking instincts and he has already stated his wish to score more.
Within the camp, the Scotland internationalist is making the most of the fact he is outscoring the club’s entire forward line by himself.
“He’s giving the strikers a bit of stick,” laughed Walker. “He’s always a threat in the air and he’s got seven goals this season now. I’m delighted for him. As a defender, the amount of goals he scores is pretty crazy really. It just shows what a good player he is.”
His contribution has been immense and he will remain a key player as Hearts strive to close in on Rangers and Aberdeen over the next few weeks.
Motherwell at Tynecastle this weekend looks like a critical fixture, for three days later Rangers arrive in Gorgie to face Hearts for the first time in the top flight since April 2012.
It is sure to be a powderkeg occasion and Walker believes a win on Saturday is needed to improve his team’s momentum. “Going into the Rangers game on Wednesday, we’re looking for a good performance and three points. The Rangers game will be massive for us.”